17 Nov 2008: Opinion

Offshore Drilling in Alaska:
Time to Slow the Rush

In the last eight years, vast areas of offshore Alaska have been opened to oil drilling. Now, a conservationist argues, the Obama administration must reverse the Bush-era policies if the state is to avoid irreparable harm to Arctic wildlife and to some of the most biologically productive waters on earth.

by margaret williams

Now that the presidential campaign is over and gasoline has — for the time being — fallen well below $3 a gallon, the chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” have died down. That is a welcome development, for during the campaign voters were lured by the siren’s song of offshore drilling and its supposed benefits, while hearing virtually nothing about its costs.

But the truth is that the environmental price of offshore drilling could be very high, and in no place more so than the state where I live: Alaska. And those of us who care deeply about Alaska’s offshore waters — encompassing some of the cleanest and most biologically productive seas on earth — are hopeful that the Obama administration and the new Congress will act decisively to reverse many decisions of the Bush White House, which moved recklessly to drill off Alaska’s coast, with little concern for the environment. Today, few Americans are aware that, during the past eight years, the Bush administration has quietly opened a vast swath of offshore Alaska — an area more than twice the size of New York state — to drilling.

While some of the Bush administration’s decisions can be undone with the stroke of Barack Obama’s pen, others cannot. A concerted effort must now be launched — in the Congress, the Interior Department, and in the courts — to rein in the oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development that gathered significant momentum in the U.S. Arctic since 2000.
Alaska drilling
Minerals Management Service
On offshore oil and gas platform at Cook Inlet in Alaska
The task is urgent not only because America’s “Polar Bear Seas” — the Beaufort and Chukchi seas — and the salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay are home to an extraordinarily rich assemblage of fish, seabirds, whales, sea lions, and other marine mammals. That urgency is compounded because global warming is rapidly altering the marine environment. Regions now open to oil drilling are losing their sea ice, which is very bad news for the creatures, such as polar bears and ringed seals, that depend on that ice to survive, though probably good news for those who would turn this pristine environment into the Saudi Arabia of the Far North.

To slow down the offshore oil rush in Alaska, the new Obama administration should take the following steps.

First, as president, Obama should sign an executive order reversing the Bush administration’s decision to drill on 5.6 million acres in Bristol Bay — home to what may be the greatest run of salmon on earth.

Second, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior must reform the department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees oil drilling. During the Bush administration, the MMS — plagued by corruption and sometimes staffed with former oil industry executives — has failed to ensure that proper environmental safeguards are in place before offshore drilling begins.

Third, under leases granted by the Bush administration, MMS has the right to suspend operations for environmental reasons. The Obama administration should invoke those rights until the oil industry demonstrates that it can operate in these extreme environments without risk to wildlife and marine resources. The new administration must prohibit drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, including prime polar bear habitat and whale migration routes.

Finally, working through the Department of the Interior and the Coast Guard, the Obama administration must vastly improve the ability of oil companies to respond to spills of heavy crude oil in Alaskan waters.

Conservation groups such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — where I am
The threat of a major oil spill off Alaska’s shores is growing rapidly as oil exploration and extraction expand into the Arctic.
managing director of the Kamchatka-Bering Sea Ecoregion Program — are staunchly against drilling in biologically rich environments such as Bristol Bay. We also believe that any new offshore development in the Arctic should only be part of a transitional effort to a new energy policy. Before such drilling is considered, however, scientists must gather baseline biological data and quantify the cumulative impacts on the marine environment.

In recent years, the troubled Minerals Management Service has moved to develop offshore Alaska with an alacrity rarely seen in a federal agency. In the past year alone, the MMS has expanded the territory available for leasing in Alaska’s offshore waters from roughly 10 million acres to more than 80 million. Earlier this year, MMS leased 2.9 million acres of that newly opened territory to oil companies in the remote Chukchi Sea. In addition, another 25 million acres of state and federal lands in the U.S. Arctic — onshore and off — are open to oil and gas leasing; of that,13.5 million acres have already been leased. The only area that now remains totally off-limits to oil drilling is the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What’s the worry? Comforted by massive oil industry advertising campaigns paid for with record profits, the average American could not be blamed for believing that the oil companies can drill oil on land and sea and transport it without a drop being spilled. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The threat of a major oil spill off Alaska’s shores is growing rapidly as oil exploration and extraction expand into the Arctic.

Those of us who work regularly on these issues are alarmed for two principal reasons. First, state and federal environmental oversight of the oil industry in the Arctic has been abhorrent. And second, engineers and other experts widely agree that the technology to contain oil spills in sea ice environments simply doesn’t exist.

Experts point to a yawning gap in “oil spill response” capacities between Arctic and temperate zones. If oil is spilled in the Arctic, we should expect
Exxon Valdez spill
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council
Aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill
it to stay there. We know all too well the impact of spilled oil on bird life and marine mammals, including polar bears: they die. MMS itself has said that the likelihood of a major oil spill in the Chukchi Sea is somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. Yet, most experts contend that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to use booms and other conventional technology to soak up heavy crude oil in waters covered in icebergs and sea ice.

The Exxon Valdez disaster, the worst oil spill in US history, did catalyze improvements in the industry. But industry problems have persisted in the Arctic, including slipshod maintenance of key parts of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and North Slope oil facilities.

On Prudhoe Bay, a lack of maintenance has caused major oil spills, leading to previous court injunctions against offshore exploration. British Petroleum went years without maintaining one of its North Slope pipelines, resulting in a spill of 200,000 gallons of oil in 2006 and a 3-day shutdown of BP’s operations.

At sea, Shell Oil has aggressively pursued plans to develop offshore oil
MMS has repeatedly demonstrated its allegiance to the oil industry, and there is a revolving door between the MMS and the industry as they trade senior staff back and forth.
deposits. But Shell’s exploration activity in the Beaufort Sea was halted when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that seismic testing would harm noise-sensitive bowhead whales and the indigenous communities that harvest them. The village of Point Hope, Alaska, joined by numerous native and environmental groups, is now challenging offshore development on the 2.9 million acres in the Chukchi Sea, contending that MMS violated federal environmental laws when it conducted the lease sales.

A top priority of the Obama administration must be to put an end to a culture at MMS in which science has routinely been quashed and corruption has been rampant. MMS has repeatedly demonstrated its allegiance to the oil industry, and there is a revolving door between the MMS and the industry as they trade senior staff back and forth. A senior MMS official retired from his agency post, only to turn up on the Shell payroll. The Interior Department’s Alaska representative made a similar move to Shell Oil. But this cozy friendship is not unique to Alaska. This fall, the Interior Department’s Inspector General released details of an investigation demonstrating a history of oil companies bribing MMS employees with gifts and sexual favors.

Understandably, consumers throughout the United States are worried about the deepening economic crisis and the high cost of living. But the implication that drilling in the U.S.’s marine environments will do much to help the average American is wrong. In fact, experts of all political persuasions acknowledge that even if offshore drilling were to begin today, a decade would pass before the oil could flow to the gas pumps. And even then, we’d only be paying a few cents less for each gallon of gas.

President-elect Obama must quash the myth of drilling our way to energy independence and develop a comprehensive energy policy that recognizes the benefits of conservation and efficiency and the necessity of moving to a low-carbon economy. In addition to slowing the rush to drill in Alaska waters until comprehensive scientific studies are conducted, the new administration should consider buying back some or all of the $2.6 billion in leases sold last February on the Chukchi Sea. A precedent exists for such action: Following the Exxon Valdez spill, the federal government paid $90 million to re-purchase leases in Bristol Bay.

Let’s hope that as our new president and Congress develop an energy and climate policy, they will reject the vision of Arctic seas bristling with oil derricks and instead pursue a forward-looking plan that will both wean the United States off its addiction to oil and secure a future for the unique ecosystems and people of the Arctic.

POSTED ON 17 Nov 2008 IN Climate Energy Energy Forests Policy & Politics North America North America 


If we are going to stop drilling, we need more energy from other reliable, abundant sources. Clean coal technologies provide us a substantial opportunity to use our most abundant energy source in a environmentally friendly way to provide electricity. Remember, China has used coal to lift literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in ways other sources of energy cannot.
Posted by Jude C on 17 Nov 2008

I'm afraid there is no such thing as "Clean coal technologies", and although currently abundant, coal too is a limited natural resource.
Posted by Geri on 18 Nov 2008

There is a flaw in your logic in the third from bottom paragraph.

Quote: "In fact, experts of all political persuasions acknowledge that even if offshore drilling were to begin today, a decade would pass before the oil could flow to the gas pumps."

If this logic were applied to all drilling everywhere and all drilling were stopped, then the price would eventually skyrocket.

For this logic to be valid, you would need to either demonstrate that drilling elsewhere would happen and with no greater environmental impact or that demand will decrease.

You have not included in your plan a provision for decreasing demand. This seems to be a highly leveraged means for managing both environmental securing as well as energy security.
Posted by Tim on 18 Nov 2008

Ms. Williams seems well meaning enough, and we should move away from carbon fuels, but statements like " rapid change in sea life due to global warming" are nonsense and undermine the cause of elevating all of humanity to the level in which Ms. Williams lives. The "CO2 is bad" myth is a conscious conspiracy by WWF and Prince Phillip and the like, who don't see it as noble to rise humanity to their level, but to snuff out 80-95% of us so that they can a big giraffe park left for themselves. Certainly non-carbon alternatives are arriving and causing the Wall St. panic, so punitive carbon taxes are not to save the planet but to kill people before the problem can solve itself, thereby undermining the case for mass softkill of the human race. It is mercury and sulfur and lead that we need to control, and diverting attention to CO2 is again criminally stupid.
Posted by Stan Lippmann on 18 Nov 2008

Mrs. Williams should move to DUBAI and try this stunt there. I wonder what the Saudi Government would do to the environ mentalist trying to block the development and production of Saudi's oil and the development of Dubai all man made city built into and on the SEA.

Wouldn't this be in contradiction to the GLOBAL WARMING cry and hurting the environment especially the OCEAN and marine fish living around the creation of Dubai and thier oil rigs that are drilling for oil in the "off shore."

Dubai must go against every single environ mentalist organization out there and our very own Government as well but why are members of our congress, our Government, citizens and he so called environmentalist invested in DUBAI.

Seems a bit odd doesn't it. I would think they would be protesting DUBAIS Government because this goes against everything the global economists are complaining about and the environmentalist. One would have to argue this because we are looking at a man made city in the ocean with cars that operate only on gasoline and they support off shore drilling and drilling from the ground. If the city of DUBAI can do it I am sure Alaska can do it just as well.

Alaska isn't asking to make a city in the ocean or tear up the environment by tapping into natural resources. Alaska is the home for energy Independence and holds the key for Americas survival, independence from foreign oil, Alaska's and the worlds economy and to strengthen America from collapse.

I do not buy into the radical environmentalist movement to block any future development for Alaska future because the last word is MENTAL.

It seems like most of these organizations are formed based off of a mental disorder. Try pulling this in Saudi Arabia. The Saudies would shut the environmentalist down. I am sure they have environmentalist there that speak on behalf of the ocean and the marine life making sure the city of DUBAI is responsible and respectful in the making of this fortune but they are not blocking any kind of production.
They are not radicals like our organizations and governments tend to be.

I would much rather have a Government like the DUBAI government here in Alaska than the one we have right now and the one in Washington. America would not be on the brink of destruction.

I would support the cause to save the environment if it was really hurting but it is not. We the people of Alaska and America are hurting and need to tap into the environment that the good lord gave us. The economy is hurting so by blocking everything and locking it up does not serve the people justice or the companies trying to keep America from going under justice.

Locking up resources from being developed especially in this economy is almost criminal.

To me that would be like saying someone just discovered a way for every American in the world to have free electricity. That will be the day because if that happened the private sectors and organizations along with our G wouldn't make any money and by knowing that someone holds the key for freedom, and independence would pose a threat. It would take away other agendas and competition from organizations, and electric companies. How would they make money. How would the Government get rich if Americans had free electricity. It would never pass through congress and the Government would lock that person up for ever.

So the environmentalist are going to do what ever they can to keep big corporations out of the market and use the Government to go along with their cause and shut down the big industries in order to monopolize the market themselves.

Common sense should say other wise. Locking up further development to keep Alaska's economy strong and to help America become energy independent will make this recession have an insurmountable impact on the economy even more leading to its demise. Worse than the great depression.

Our troops along with innocent men,women, and children are getting killed because of the environ mentalist out there who do not care about humanity as much as saving a body of water from exploration.

I will never understand how they can have so much power until I talked with a group today who says their Ocean organization helps get elected officials into the supreme courts that are on their side for the purpose of stopping exploration and drilling. These groups know exactly what they are doing and they know the judges will go right along with them. America doesn't stand a chance with this kind of coercion. This is true.

Their agenda is to hurt America and its infrastructure and the people who support oil, mining, coal development in America. There is enough room for the companies to develop with out hurting marine life or the environments life.

If DUBAI can do it and Americans certainly support DUBAI because they are over their celebrating the newest development ATLANTIS and are invested there, what is the problem here in Alaska. What a huge contradiction.

So the problem starts with all of these organizations, lobbyists, the private sectors, the elected officials who have something to gain along with the CFR's agenda. That is to destroy America and it's infrastructure.

Let me put a spin on this. It seems they support WAR though. How come the environmentalist aren't in federal court trying to block the US from invading other countries for OIL which is killing humans and innocent children along with animals, the air quality, the environment, around the world. I think that war has a much more devastating impact on the environment than an oil rig in the ocean or an oil company set up in a small corner in ANWAR for domestic production.

Talk about total destruction. If I were Obama I would make sure that I was on both sides of the coin here and friends with the oil companies allowing some compromises. Why does it have to be so one sided? Why do the environ mentalist have the upper hand in almost every case when it comes to development. We depend on our resources in order to survive.

We wouldn't have to send our troops overseas to get killed for claims on other peoples resources if our Government was not run by a bunch of organizations and the private sector.

The environmentalist are a huge non profit organization working for the G and getting big money from the federal G in grants doing nothing else but trying to shut down America and lock it up. It's completely hypocritical.

Mrs. Williams you may feel you are serving a good cause and writing such but it is only a radical cause doing nothing more but to hurt this falling economy and Americans.

I am not impressed at all with your article. I feel it is biased, one sided and you do not state concrete facts for your reasons to celebrate this decision.

I love the environment just as much as you do but I love life and humans more.

Our economy is in shambles, now is the perfect time for resource development so maybe you should do the right thing and compromise.
Better the Ocean than humans.
Posted by Lisa on 21 Nov 2008

Dartmouth’72 here. I am calling upon the “big green” Daniel Webster to rise from his grave, mount the podium at Baker Library, and debate the Yale “blue” of George Bush and several commentators to Ms. Williams’ article.

Mr. Webster would focus, as all should, on Ms. Williams’ central points. Her first is that “the environmental price of offshore drilling could be very high” in two places in Alaska: (1) Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, and (2) in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Her second is that “President-elect Obama must quash the myth of drilling our way to energy independence and develop a comprehensive energy policy that recognizes the benefits of conservation and efficiency and the necessity of moving to a low-carbon economy.”

Now, as Mr. Webster turns to the loyal blue opposition from Yale, he will note several comments which assume, incorrectly, that Ms. Williams advocates that the US stop all offshore drilling. That is not in her article. Ms. Williams writes about Bristol Bay and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas -- not Florida, California, New England, any other offshore location, not even Hampton Beach where there’s enough oil on skin to make a Texan blush and run home to Midland on January 20, 2009.

So, let’s see if the economic and biological facts sustain Ms. Williams’ view that Bristol Bay is too important to drill for oil. I recently co-authored a law journal article that examines the importance of Bristol Bay and its drainages. (See “Pebble Mine: Fish, Minerals, and Testing the Limits of Alaska’s ‘Large Mine Permitting Process’” at www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?25+Alaska+L.+Rev.+1+pdf.) Ms. Williams is correct that Bristol Bay and its drainages produce the world’s most important commercial salmon fisheries. My clients in another matter involving Bristol Bay had hired a Yale-trained economist, Dr. John Duffield, at the University of Montana, who is one of the nation’s top natural resource economists and co-author of the legal treatise, Natural Resource Damages, to assess the economic importance of Bristol Bay. He found that the wild salmon watersheds in the Bristol Bay drainages annually generate about $324 million in regional expenditures related to salmon. This creates an estimated 5,540 full-time-equivalent jobs in Alaska. Alaska residents held more than 3,400 of these jobs, with almost 1,600 held by residents of the Bristol Bay area. The Bristol Bay drainages annually produce an average of 39 million sockeye salmon, the most valuable commercial species. This is more than twice as many salmon, of all species, as the entire Columbia River drainage produced before those salmon populations declined due to dams, habitat loss, poorly designed hatchery programs and other causes. (See the law review article for additional discussion of the importance of Bristol Bay and its drainages.)

To understand salmon, fisheries for them, and oil development, one has to understand where the fish rear in the marine environment and how they integrate into law. (We live in a modern world where law affects fish and a lot more.) Chum salmon (and pink salmon for that matter), which are not the most important stocks economically in Bristol Bay, leave the freshwater environment about 30 days after hatching, and the juveniles rear for a period of time in intertidal and coastal areas. There, they are susceptible to direct and indirect effects of hydrocarbon pollution. Thereafter, they swim out to the North Pacific, and the chum salmon return as adults at the same time of year as the sockeye salmon, which are the lucrative target species. So, the question arises: What happens if an oil spill harms the ecology of the intertidal and coastal rearing areas for juvenile chum salmon, and a stock of chums gets listed under the Endangered Species Act? At that point, the law is likely to restrict the sockeye fishery to protect the co-mingled returning endangered chum salmon stock. That is the sort of reason commercial fishers and Daniel Webster (he was a salmon fisherman on the Merrimack River) understand about oil development in Bristol Bay. It boils down to this: spills occur, and oil spilled in Bristol Bay is entirely different from oil spilled elsewhere. That is essentially Ms. Williams’ first point. (The only thing I’d add that is that salmon are not the entire picture. Bristol Bay produces important species that sustain other fisheries, such as those for crab, sablefish, etc.)

Turning to Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and polar bears, all I know is that I tie flies with polar bear fur from before the beasts were listed under the Endangered Species Act, and that oil is fungible. A drop of Canadian crude pretty much replaces a drop of Chukchi Sea crude just fine. That, also, is essentially Ms. Williams’ first point.

Now, turning to Ms. Williams’ second point, she has asked Mr. Obama to recognize that we cannot drill our way to energy independence and should develop an energy policy based on conservation, efficiency and less dependence on carbon fuels. Several of the comments confuse what Ms. Williams says about Bristol Bay and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where the issues are narrow and specific, with what she says more generally about the broad issue of energy independence. That confusion precipitates comments (some of which are unbecoming), but I don’t see any that disagree with Ms. Williams’ point that we need conservation, efficiency and less dependence on carbon fuels.

My only suggestion to Ms. Williams’ is that if she wants to be “green,” she should have gone to Dartmouth. I almost transferred to Yale in 1970, but then I realized that New Haven lacked trout fishing. Every once in while Yale does produce someone who, unlike George Bush, makes the right points. I am confident that Yale is proud that Ms. Williams does so.

Posted by Jeff on 24 Nov 2008

Comments have been closed on this feature.
margaret williamsABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margaret Williams is the Managing Director of World Wildlife Fund’s Kamchatka-Bering Sea Ecoregion Program, which is working on an international conservation strategy for this region. Fluent in Russian, she has worked extensively in Russia for the past 15 years, first for the World Bank and since 1997 for WWF. She founded and still edits Russian Conservation News, a quarterly journal on biodiversity conservation in Eurasia.



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